We arrived in My Tho just in time for the lady in front to vomit all over the lady standing in front of her waiting to exit the bus. The lady turned her mouth upside down and brushed off the debris without a word before getting off. What a reaction! The bus ride was fine when the wind had expelled the stale, inferno like air and it only cost us 45,000 vnd (1.50 pounds). We had seen tours to My Tho for $300- $350 for 5 days and so it would be interesting to see how much cheaper it could be done locally.
The usual fare of moto taxis awaited and again we sat with coffee to establish that this time there were no buses that went into town and so a moto taxi was needed for the 5km to the riverside. We were advised of a new hotel that was cheap as a result of being fairly unknown. Having learnt this in Hue we agreed to be taken there.
Phuong Hong was way out of our league, but we negotiated a rate of $8 per night in a standard double and were led up the new marble staircase, past ornate wooden chairs sat in open spaces that overlooked the Mekong, to our room. A very spacious room with TV, fridge and air-conditioning. Being new everything was in good condition and clean. We had a shared balcony that overlooked the hotel’s karaoke bar, but the other side had extensive views of the river and all the activity on it.
We headed out to find some local food place, but at 1pm it is a bit late for most local places, as the Vietnamese eat lunch generally between 10am and 1pm. Yet we found a place with people eating BBQ pork we ordered the same. BBQ pork with rice and some fried vegetables with a small side soup containing a bitter gourd stuffed with pork we call ‘snozcumber’ due to its texture and taste. Layered with fish sauce and chilli however, everything is more than bearable, especially for 25,000 vnd (80p). Satisfied we head to the river, passing through the back streets, groups gambling on the street floor, kids emerging shouting hello and warm smiles from the old men. We passed a coconut processing factory, where the coconuts are carved to the right shape with machetes ready to be drunk until we found a secluded bar with just a group of men in. We sat for a drink and walked up to two ladies to ask for a beer. With blank looks and us repeating our order a man came over who asked in English what we wanted. He gave the same order we had in what we considered the same words and accent. We sat down and she proceeded to give us a beer, remove it, give us another, remove it and then forget the ice. The man came back, but he was just adding to the confusion. We had completed this order loads of times by then, but sometimes people just seem to be confused by foreigners ordering or speaking in Vietnamese.
We stayed for a couple before continuing down the main road until we reached the bridge and headed north ultimately assuming we would do a big loop to where we started. Soon surprised looks began to greet us, which means that tourists rarely come to this part. Soon we ran into a beer hoi and do sat to relax as it was so hot and we had been walking in the full sun. The cheapest yet… 1.5 liters for 6,000 vnd! Everyone loved the fact we were there. The next table insisted on giving me a shot of rice wine. The beer was crude and unfiltered. People started to emerge from the bar and handed us their mug of beer, insisting we drank that.
They kept coming and giving us their beer shouting with us ”cheers” in Vietnamese ”mot, hai, ba, yo! (literally 1,2,3 go!) We hadn’t touched our beer, so when the same people came out we started feeding them our beer.
They were already intoxicated and we dreaded thinking how long they had been sat there. Soon we were full of beer, which is when a man brought us an egg cut in half. The yolk was green and the white, purple and slimy. It looked absolutely foul. I can eat some strange and challenging things, yet there was not way at that point I could even look at that egg. He wasn’t impressed by there was no way I could do it, whether it offended or not, let alone Laura.
We were about to leave when a large storm hit, with the cold winds first followed by its intense rain and lightning. We were stuck in the beer place, so ordered another plastic bottle of beer, in for the long haul.
This is what we relish though, we sat with the locals and communicated as best we could, collectively shook our heads at the man who had drunk far too much and wouldn’t leave. Eventually we had to bite the bullet and leave as it was now dark. We realised that we couldn’t remember the hotel name and that the way back was a guess. We walked through torrential rain, flooded roads and awnings spilling water everywhere. When reaching where we though we should be we began asking for the Mekong. People really didn’t understand, which was strange, as it was their food source and the main feature of town. We were passed by motobikes plowing through over a foot of water. Suddenly we were nimbly passing under the awnings of shops to avoid the road water when Laura slipped and landed heavily on her wrist. In pain and lost we had to regain our composure before tackling getting home. Eventually we found the road, walked up it one direction before realising it was the other way. Soaked through we made it back to nurse Laura’s wrist in ice.
The next morning we slept in and watched some TV before emerging to actually get our bearings this time. We were debating going on a boat tour of some of the islands in this section of the Mekong. We agreed a price of 500,000 vnd (8 pounds each) for us both on a private boat, but were undecided whether we actually wanted to go or not. It was a well advertised and popular trip that we had even seen in HCMC. Due to the number of different stops it would be too much effort to warrant organising it separately. We decided to go for it in the afternoon to see the glow worms in the trees after sunset.
The first leg was to Turtle island where they make honey and grow fruit as their only industry. The honey was tasty, but suspiciously watery. We were able to try the honey, banana wine and pollen, before being told to explore the island for 30 minutes. We walked around the extremely rural island, 11km long with just the sound of a few dogs and birds singing. Otherwise silence. A few villagers passed us on bikes, through the tree lined paths. It seemed as though every plant bore fruit or something that was edible. Banana trees were everywhere, gently flapping its broad leaves like elephants ears in the light breeze.
Next stop was the fruit tasting. This was walking further along the island where a room had been set up for tourists. A group of people played traditional instruments and women took their turns to sing halfheartedly. We were payed a visit, but were left after 2 songs as a larger table of people were more likely to give a tip it turned out, as we noticed a tips box and a basket being left on our table. We didn’t take any money as we thought everything was included, as described. We ate some fruit, but were not privy to anything we had not tried before.
Then we were approached by a man who would be our next boat driver. He took us to a rowing boat and told us we didn’t need to pay for this. We were taken through the backwaters of the Mekong that carve up these islands into different areas.
Dende plants lined the thin rivers allowing just slithers of light in, showing the nutrient rich soil. Winding through the river and passing a few boats on their way back, we were greeted with cries of ”tips!” Even a man pushing a bike overhead on a bridge made this cry, which dampened my mood of the situation. We climbed onto the main motor boat and our driver hesitated to wait for us to give the rowers a tip, despite telling us we didn’t need to pay. We felt really guilty, but remained adamant. Why were we not told people expected tips and did this mean they were not getting paid enough for this pseudo-cultural experience?
Either way we reminded each other to avoid this spoiling our time. We were then taken to Dragon island in Ben Tre province where some men were sat around drinking rice wine. We were offered a shot before being introduced to the process of making coconut candy and trying a sample. We were also shown the local specialty of snake whisky and allowed to try a couple of shots. With this rushing to our heads we headed out to have a look at the local village life here.
Old people sat in their door ways in pensive thought. The amount of standing water or mosquito factories demonstrated how low to sea level the area was. Dragon eye fruit and banana plants were everywhere. Another 30 minute stop and we were back as agreed. Yet we had to wait for the sun to go down before our last stop of seeing the glow worms. We sat on the jetty and watched the sun fall. The mud flats were lined with the last of the sun, while silhouettes of fishermen were what remained on the river, except the occasional barge carrying goods up or down stream. A tranquil moment to enjoy such an enigmatic river.
Our guide didn’t engage with us much, which was fine, but did tell us of the fish farms that were replacing traditional fishing. Today very few large fish are found. It takes a year to catch a few kilos of fish in the river, but just 4 months to produce in the farms. The taste of real Mekong fish far outweighs the farmed stuff. When we quizzed him on why people would still catch baby fish to eat rather than let the population return so there were fish in the river again he had no answer. Simply that he went to the Philippines illegally to catch their fish and was often fired upon.
We cruised down the river and moored to a post on the bank. Our guide was on the phone as we waited for the fading twilight to be replaced by the twinkling of the glow worms in the trees. It is amazing how you can only see one or two and then slowly they all begin to appear, before the whole tree looks as though it has been decorated for festivities.
A 40 minute stop there and we began to fight the current back to our hotel’s dock. As the tide was out thought there was no way we could get out, so had to be dropped off at the pathway leaning sideways 45 degree as though it would topple into the river at any moment. We scrambled up the bank and headed back to our hotel for dinner.
That evening we checked out our posh looking restaurant and were surprised how reasonable it was. We ordered a Thai seafood salad and seafood noodles for just 40,000 and 45,000 vnd respectively. We sat on the end of their jetty looking out at night over the Mekong. Red and green navigation lights flickered, as the daily commotion subsided into a specific peace that you can only experience next to a body of water. We gazed out, eating our massive portion that needed saving for breakfast satisfied, pleased with finding the Phuong Hung hotel. A touch of class for the same price we have been used to.
We were due to leave the next day, but chose to enjoy the relative luxury we could afford for another day. This was spent lazing in our comfortable bed, with air-con, watching TV, and reading. We stared out of the balcony into the distant Mekong and opposite bank full of banana plantations and coconut trees, dense with tropical green, the fishermen paddling in circles laying nets before hauling it in to gather what little fish they could. Barges past full of dredged sand from the river further upstream and half below water under the weight.
Later that night we cracked open our bottle of Vietnamese Dalat red wine we had carried with us since Buon Ma Thot. A light weight and medium sweet, yet fairly acidic due to the soil content in the region. Good to try, but that was as far as its quality fared. A storm erupted that evening as we were playing dice and the driving rain covered the floor in water. Spectacular forks of lightning gave the landscape a new feeling of unrelenting natural forces that are constant in the Mekong delta. As a dice flew Laura chased and also flew on the same wrist as the other day. In agony I tip toed down to get more ice to calm the swelling. We debate the need of getting an X-ray, but decide to see how things feel day by day. Not looking good.
Another sleep before we awoke to head north to the boarder town of Chau Doc. There were a few options, but with apparently some interesting things to see, there we decided to skip other towns like Vinh Long, Long Xuyen, or the regional capital Can Tho. This gives us more time in one place rather than being ”fly by tourists”, who experience little, but just cram in the highlights of as many places as possible.
Buses left for Chau Doc on the famous route 1 or the Vietnam-American friendship highway. We were going to attempt it alone, but reinforced through our trusted hotel manager what we predicted would be the scenario. We would be over charged at the local bus stop on the highway and since we needed to pay for a moto taxi to the highway anyway, we might as well pay 10,000 vnd extra to have everything arranged. This would simply mean less hassle, we would be ensured a seat and would avoid the risk of being stitched up , while in a position where we had little option but to wait for another bus.
We caved in to logic and paid 115,000 vnd for the 4 hour ride , including 7km moto drive to the right spot. Two bikes turned up, one clapped out with electrics showing and another that may pass a western safety check- just. With our large rucksacks between the handle bars and the driver, followed by me and then our day bag on my back we sped off, swerving to avoid traffic pulling out without looking and others driving slowly because of an over-sized load amongst many other reasons. As always we arrived in one piece, despite constantly wondering how. Yet it is funny what you get used to. At first these were white knuckle rides, but yet I was idly looking around smoking without holding on even.
The bus turned up almost instantly, everyone helped us on the bus with our bags, stuffed them behind our seats, intruding massively on the person’s leg room behind us. Despite apologies, just a smile and a definite shake of the head showed their lack of concern.
We set off, all windows open and dust streaming into the bus and into our eyes. The breeze made it worthwhile, but my lost sunglasses that I hadn’t replaced as a lesson to myself, but would have been great at that point.
We passed endless wooden houses on stilts, practically identical in design due to the space allocation and relevance to a humid tropical climate, but some painted in bright colours and different states of repair. Hammocks lazily swung under the houses to provide midday refuge from the heat. Away from the towns clearly defined squares of paddy fields carved up the landscape. Some yellow-green and sparse, others sprouting or in full luscious green mature rice ready for harvest. Each with different water levels according to their point in the cultivation cycle.
People dotted within the fields were knees high in water tending to their precious crop. We reached one small town where the outskirts were baron, with random items of hardcore refuse. Large signs showed grand plans for a modern suburb. Accommodation blocks with glass facades, open paved roads that are tree lined and a world away from the town’s current state. Bulldozers in the distance showed this was a large scale, trans-formative scheme. Instigated by local wealth of some kind, but what we could not figure.
Larger towns consisted of the usual street stalls selling food, rubbish thrown into the street for collectors to deal with at the end of the day were punctuated by glass fronted show rooms for motobikes and clean, western looking shops selling mobile phones. Two of the core consumer items in Vietnam and Asia in general.
We climbed over an overpass and over numerous tributaries of the Mekong delta. Some were narrow canals with small wooden, traditional fishing boats with men casting nets, while other parts were long bridges stretching across wide areas of the river, numerous islands breaking up the grand flow of this massive river. We remembered following a tributary in Buon ma Thot and passing a factory that seemed to be expelling some waste in to the river upstream. Now we could see collections of a yellow scum circling in eddies some 400km down stream, where toxicity levels of the river we nearing its peak.
Humidity seemed to increase as we headed north. Houses became broken with banana trees and man made pools that collected water from the foods to keep fish.
We stopped in the middle of nowhere at one point and watched a truck pull up next to the bus. The bus staff of 2 helped unload massive, heavy bags of some unidentified cargo before we continued on to Chau Doc.
As usual we climbed off the bus to be met by a throng of motodups, but decided to start walking towards town. We were approached by a man who claimed to work for a tour company and not be a moto taxi. He suggested a free ride into town, which was 5km away to a cheap place in town. Laura set off first and I continued walking to be picked up on a return run. Kids came out the street jumping up and down, laughing and saying hello. I hold their hands and jump around as they did before walking off to the calls of ‘money’. That is the first time I have heard that in Vietnam by children.
I passed a major cross road and an agricultural machines shop, blaring out loud dance music, remixed in Asian cheesy electro style. We had seen this before and postulated they were part of a sale promotion. A huge promo banner confirmed our suspicion. I was soon met by ‘Vang’ who drove me the rest of the way to the proposed ”Hoa Hung” guesthouse. Which would be a world away from our temporary residence in My Tho.